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Teolinda Gersâo: Paisagem com mulher e mar ao fundo [Landscape with Woman and Sea in the Background]

Gersâo tells, as well as anyone, of women and their world, including both their isolation but also their often difficult dealings with the masculine world. Hortense, the protagonist of this novel, is a typical Gersâo heroine but her problem with the masculine world concerns less the men in her immediate circle but, much more, the man she merely calls O. S., namely Oliveira Salazar, former dictator of Portugal. In particularly, she blames Salazar for the death of both her husband and her son. Her husband died of a heart attack but had been persecuted by the Salazar regime. Her son was killed while serving in one of Portugal’s colonial wars.

The novel is divided into three parts. In the first part, set in the present, Hortense is in the depths of despair, both for the death of her husband but also for the death of her son, and contemplates suicide. Gersâo paints a portrait of a woman trapped, cut off. One of the main images is of a window. Hortense sees things not directly, but through a window, both the sea and the landscape but also other people. Language is very important in Gersâo’s work and we see clearly how Hortense is trapped by the limitations of language. (This can be compared with a wonderful passage in the next part, where we see how Salazar controls everything, even language. The censors cut out subversive words such as freedom love hope subversion kiss sex people (Gersâo does not put commas between the words in her list) but, as people used ordinary substitute words for these forbidden words, they extend their list to these ordinary words, such as all the river words and then all the boat words and so on.

The second part is set in the past and concerns her often fragmented memories, of her early life and childhood, and, in particular, of her husband and son. But is also in this part that we see the all-pervasive influence of Salazar and his regime. He controls the laws and institutions. Above all, from Hortense’s perspective and from the perspective of many Portuguese mothers, he sends Portuguese young men off to colonial wars, there to die. Gersâo does not hold back in her condemnation of Salazar but his fall brings only a short paragraph and is mainly replaced by the story of the Lord of the Sea ceremony, which involves a procession in a small Portuguese town to honour the Lord of the Sea, who has control over both life and death. When the image of the Lord of the Sea falls, tearing its satin covering, the symbolism is evident. It was a miracle, said the people. (Salazar allegedly fell off his chair, precipitating a stroke, leading to his death.)

In the final part, we are back in the present. Clara, Hortense’s daughter-in-law, is feeling suicidal because of the loss of Pedro, Hortense’s son and her husband. But Hortense starts to get back her old self. Salazar is gone (but Gersâo makes little of this, at least as a historical event) and the women have to carry on, as they always do, with the masculine side if not vanquished, at least pushed aside.

Publishing history

First published 1982 by O Jornal
No English translation
Translated into German as Landschaft mit Frau und Meer im Hintergrund, Frauenbuchverlag, 1985
Translated into Dutch as Landschap met Vrouw en Zee, Sjaloom, 1986
Translated by Hennie Bos